Is ESPN's Distribution Still More Important Than Talent

BY foxsports • May 16, 2016

In sports, great talent is portable, the name on the back of the jersey matters much more than the name on the front of the jersey. If LeBron James packs up and moves from Cleveland to Miami and back to Cleveland again the wins follow him. The same is true in the NFL, Peyton Manning goes from Indianapolis where he dominated and won a Super Bowl to Denver, where he dominated and won another Super Bowl.

In college football Nick Saban can win a title at LSU and then win one at Alabama too (we'll pretend the Miami Dolphins didn't happen); Urban Meyer can win a title at Florida and at Ohio State. The point is pretty simple and indisputable -- if you have a great talent in sports you can win just about anywhere.

Great talent is portable, it wins wherever it goes.  

Great talent has been portable in other entertainment arenas too -- Howard Stern dominated radio ratings in Detroit, Washington, D.C., New York, and then his audience followed him to Sirius satellite radio, a business that he helped to popularize at a time when there was a legitimate question whether or not the satellite radio industry would survive. Now it's thriving. Stern's audience helped to make that possible. In movies, Tom Cruise can jump from one studio to another and still produce big audiences for his movies. The movie company distributing his film matters less than he does. 

In most entertainment industries -- movies, books, music, and sports -- the goal is simple -- find the best talent and plug it in, then you can beat your competition. But does that theory work in sports television or does distribution still matter more than talent? In other words, does the name on the front of the jersey -- ESPN -- matter more than the name on the back of the suit?

Well, Skip Bayless is about to offer a fascinating test case.

If his $6.5 million a year salary is accurate -- that's a reported $5.5 million a year plus a $4 million signing bonus -- Skip Bayless would be higher paid than 26 NFL head coaches in 2016, clocking in at number seven overall, just above Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. Think about that stat for a minute.

Fox Sports -- and in particular Jamie Horowitz, who believes in his talent which is why his talent all loves him, is making a big bet that Bayless's audience is portable. Whether that's the case or not is important for all sports media talent. If Bayless is worth his salary then sports television is moving even more into a superstar era, pay the top talent because they, like the athletes and coaches they talk about, produce wins and ratings no matter where they are. I can't wait to see what happens.  

Confession: you guys know I work at Fox, but the Bayless story would be fascinating to me no matter where I worked. And I don't even know Bayless at all, I've never met him. Because audience portability is the single most valuable asset anyone in media can have today. Given how rapidly technology is evolving, it matters more than anything.  

I'll explain why in a bit, but first let me tell you a bit about what I've learned when it comes to portability of talent in Internet sports media online. 

It isn't rocket science to say that the Internet is ahead of other forms of media when it comes to setting trends. And I've been writing online about sports since way back in 2004, which makes me a virtual dinosaur by Internet time standards. When I started writing online social media didn't exist. Facebook had just been founded, Twitter was years away from existing, just about all the traffic you received from your articles was predicated on whether or not your story was prominently featured on a popular site. If you went up on the front page of ESPN or CBS, traffic flooded into your article because lots of eyeballs saw your work. If you went up on the front page of AOL, MSN, or Yahoo, it was a traffic tsunami. The point is simple: Distribution determined success when I started writing online. (The fact that AOL, MSN and Yahoo still deliver traffic onslaughts is amazing. You'd be astounded by the number of people who still start their Internet browsing sessions here in 2016). 

The social media of the 2004 era -- link aggregating sites like College Humor, Fark, the Drudge Report, and the like -- were the only "independent" sources of large traffic. And there were gatekeepers there, people who decided whether an article deserved to be linked after readers submitted it. That was back when doing original content paid off when you got linked. Those sites sent tons of readers to your site because they were just that, links to the sites. Nowadays popular sites aggregate stories and no one actually clicks on the originally sourced article. So getting linked doesn't matter very much in terms of traffic. So much for a shared economy, every man is for himself out here on these Internet streets today.

Instead of social media, the early sites of the day become obsessed with search. How high could your article rank in Google search results and would Google News choose to link your article? Google could make or break sites. (This, by the way, is why I see Google buying Twitter for $20 or so a share as Twitter's worst case scenario. Google desperately needs to better integrate live events into its search terms. Much better than exists now with a Twitter partnership). This is how Bleacher Report become popular, it relentlessly aggregated and dominated the Google search terms better than anyone else. 

I started writing at CBS in 2005 and the success or failure of an article had to do with your placement on the site. Were you on the front page? Were you easy to find? If not, you were buried in the catacombs of the site. When I left CBS to be an editor at Deadspin in 2008, I remember getting an email from a reader saying that he liked me at CBS, but wouldn't follow me to Deadspin. I wrote a farewell column at CBS, but for a year or more I would get emails from people asking where I'd gone. I didn't control the means of my distribution. Whether you loved or hated me you had to work to find me online. And so when I left Deadspin and signed on with FanHouse I'd made two switches in a year and casual readers had no idea where I was. Sure, they could do a Google search, but even that was a mess.   

That's why when I started using Twitter in 2009 I immediately saw that it helped to swing the distribution issues in favor of individual talent. Instead of needing to be featured on a site, you could find your favorite writers and read their articles directly. I immediately saw that the number of people entering a site from the front page was going to dwindle. In a social media era, you don't need to look for articles you like, they find you.

This new universe conflicted with the site goals of the new place I was writing -- FanHouse.com, which was in the midst of spending millions of dollars to hire newspaper writers and put them online. The concept was simple, we're going to recreate the newspaper online by hiring the best newspaper writers and taking them national. Only, and here was the problem, most newspaper writers didn't bring an audience with them online and newspaper writers had grown so used to having their distribution already done for them via a newspaper that they didn't understand how to promote their content aggressively.

Worst of all, most of them didn't realize that instead of automatically owning a local news business -- which most newspapers did -- you were suddenly competing with the entire nation online. The rewards were great -- more national readers than you could have ever imagined -- but so were the challenges. Instead of being the top dog in Atlanta or Washington, D.C. or San Francisco or Miami you had to compete with everyone in the country every single day. The simple fact was this, if AOL.com didn't have FanHouse articles on its front page, no one would have read the site. 

That's why one of the first tests in online sports media was this -- do individual newspaper writers carry an audience with them when they move online? The answer was no. Rick Reilly, even though he wrote for a magazine, is the perfect example of this phenomenon. ESPN paid him a ton of money to recreate his SI column online. But SI's print readers moved on. They read Reilly when he was distributed to them in the magazine which showed up at the hours every week and didn't require any change in their habits. But as soon as they had to track him down online, most chose not to follow him. What Reilly did offline didn't work online.

But for writers who were native to the web, something interesting began to happen -- readers followed the names on the back of the jerseys instead of the names on the front. Bill Simmons and Peter King are probably the best examples of this. Their audiences will now find them no matter where they write. Although, to be fair, it's also fair to ask if Simmons and King would have ever reached their readership if they hadn't had the major support and backing of ESPN and SI for years.  

When I started Outkick in 2011 I was gambling that readers would find me no matter where I wrote. Social media distribution through Twitter and Facebook made Outkick possible. But it also finally proved a new thesis -- writers mattered more than where they worked. So in my experience it took the Internet roughly 7-10 years to go from all that matters is where you write to where you write doesn't matter at all.  

All of this brings me back to Skip Bayless and television and what I believe is the most fascinating test in recent sports media history. Does the name on the back of the jersey matter more than the name on the front of the jersey in television today? Is sports television somehow fundamentally different than the online sports writing marketplace or is television just moving slower because its audience is older and less tech savvy than internet readership?

So far ESPN's theory that the name on the front of the jersey matters more than the name on the back has proven fairly sound. ESPN's ratings haven't collapsed no matter who they have lost. Chris Fowler is replaced by Rece Davis and ESPN College Gameday posts record ratings. Michelle Beadle leaves SportsNation for NBC Sports Network where she starts a new show that no one watches and then comes back to SportsNation, which continues to post relatively similar ratings throughout the transitions. ESPN has spent two decades telling talent they're free to leave, but that the audience won't follow them.

And mostly they've been correct.

But things change. And I think we're starting to see television and the Internet become the same vehicle. And slowly we've started to see some cracks in ESPN's foundation. Dan Patrick is the best success story here, a guy who left ESPN and then created a substantial audience without the distribution power of ESPN. Colin Cowherd has left and produced strong television ratings for a radio show on TV at FS1. (He regularly bests Dan Patrick and Dan LeBatard, who are doing the same type of show that he is. Plus, his show's podcast ratings are consistently stellar.) Bill Simmons bailed on ESPN and just bought a Malibu beach house for $7.5 million. As he prepares for his new weekly HBO show his influence doesn't seem to have waned at all.

In an era when individual viewers can make decisions and follow their favorite -- or most hated -- stars, the power of ESPN's distribution isn't what it once was. So now comes the most fascinating test of all -- Skip Bayless.

Will a substantial portion of Bayless's viewers leave ESPN2 and migrate to FS1? If they do, look out, a seismic shift in television will be happening and at long last ESPN will be in full battle mode. Networks will make it rain to keep stars at home. ESPN is praying that Bayless falls on his face, Fox has gambled that he won't.

Love him or hate him, Bayless is a modern day Rorschach test for sports media portability on television. If his audience follows him, it won't just be Bayless that gets filthy rich, it's everyone else following in his wake too. So now it's time to find out, in 2016 which is more popular, the ESPN name on the front of the jersey or Bayless's name on the back?  


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